Which Is Smarter, Your Cat or Your Dog? Here’s What the Latest Study Says

cat vs dog intelligence

Story at-a-glance -

  • A recent study suggests that cats, like dogs, have episodic memory and may be just as intelligent as their canine counterparts
  • Episodic memory is related to introspection, and according to the lead study author, it could be that cats “may enjoy actively recalling memories of their experience like humans”
  • It’s not easy to compare intelligence between species, but some experts use the Encephalization Quotient (EQ) to compare intelligence and brain weight in relation to an animal’s body size
  • Social animals (dogs) are thought to have higher EQs than solitary animals (kitties), which is why many experts believe dogs are smarter
  • Cats are also more difficult to study than dogs, but researchers have shown they can be trained to distinguish between different quantities of objects and follow pointing gestures, just as dogs do

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

A recent Japanese study suggests that since cats are as good as dogs at certain memory tests, they may be just as intelligent as their canine counterparts. The study involved 49 domestic cats and shows they can recall memories of pleasant experiences, such as eating a favorite food.1

A unique memory of a specific event is known as episodic memory, and along with humans, dogs are also capable of having these types of memories, which are linked with an individual's experience of a specific event, and are unique to that individual. According to Bob Yirka, writing for Phys.org:

"Prior research has shown that human beings have what is known as episodic memory, which is the ability to connect autobiographical information with contextual details — an example would be recalling the details of a birthday party, rather than just the fact that it occurred. Part of this memory allows for recalling what happened and when, and that was something the researchers wanted to know if cats have as well — other studies have shown dogs have it."2

Episodic memory differs from semantic memory, which is formed from facts and rules that animals learn in order to survive. According to lead researcher Saho Takagi of Kyoto University, in an interview with BBC News:

"Episodic memory is viewed as being related to introspective function of the mind; our study may imply a type of consciousness in cats. An interesting speculation is that they may enjoy actively recalling memories of their experience like humans."3

Past research suggests primates, pigeons and rats may also form episodic memories.4

Study Suggests Cats and Dogs May Be Equally Intelligent

The researchers fed the cats using multiple bowls of food over time. They learned which types of food the cats preferred and served it to them in a specific bowl, which caused the kitties to form memories of what was served and when. Later, they switched up the bowls to observe whether a given cat remembered such details.

Other experiments the researchers performed showed the kitties were able to remember if they had previously searched a given bowl when looking for a particular type of food and the circumstances under which it occurred. The research team believes cats may remember for much longer periods than their experiments measured, and they also say cats are on a par with dogs on a variety of mental tests, including responding to human gestures, facial expressions and emotions.

"Understanding cats more deeply helps to establish better cat-human relationships," Takagi said. "Cats may be as intelligent as dogs, as opposed to the common view of people that dogs are much smarter."

This research could open the door to additional studies to determine how long cats' memories are, and what other kinds of episodes in their lives they remember. This is potentially very exciting, because cats don't get nearly the research attention or funding that dogs do.

How Accurate Is the Comparison Between Dog and Cat Intelligence?

Dog and cat people have been asking this question for decades, but the question of who's smarter, dogs or cats, is actually a tricky topic to investigate because even the question is problematic. Dogs and cats are different species, after all, so comparing intelligence between them is like comparing apples to bananas, and in my opinion, nearly impossible to assess accurately.  As Stanley Coren, Ph.D., author of "The Intelligence of Dogs," writes in Psychology Today:

"In the case of dogs versus cats … each are specialized to do different things. Dogs are designed to be more efficient runners while cats have better ability at manipulating things with their paws. Thus a test that involved pulling strings or operating levers would tend to favor a cat, while a test involving moving from place to place, where speed is a measure of performance, would favor a dog.

Charles Darwin claimed, 'Intelligence is based on how efficient a species became at doing the things they need to survive,' and one might argue that by this definition all species that stay healthy, remain numerous and avoid extinction are equally intelligent."5

The theory that bigger brains are associated with increased intelligence is true to a point, but problems arise because bigger animals require larger brains (but this does not necessarily indicate superior intelligence).

Encephalization Quotient (EQ): A Tool to Compare Intelligence Between Species

According to Coren, the "Encephalization Quotient" (EQ) was developed in the 1970s as a tool to compare intelligence and brain weight in relation to an animal's body size, thereby solving the problems with previous attempts to link brain size to intelligence.

Using this tool, it turns out that higher brain mass in relation to body size is associated with increased intelligence. Based on EQ, the smartest animals are (in descending order) humans, great apes, porpoises and elephants. Close behind are dogs. Cats are further down the list, with horses, sheep, mice, rats and rabbits below kitties.

Social animals tend to have higher EQs than solitary animals, simply because socializing requires more problem solving, communication and interaction. Dogs are pack animals while cats are not. An interesting point made by Coren, however, is that research suggests dogs' increasing social demands are making them even smarter.

Those demands come from their close interactions with humans, which have required them to understand human communications over time to a much greater degree than cats. Researchers have tested this theory and found that based on EQ, dogs have become progressively more intelligent while cats have stayed mostly the same. As Coren explained:

"This means that not only are dogs smarter than cats, but the gap between the species is increasing over time. At the risk of starting another argument, these data may explain why we never hear about such things as a 'seeing eye cat,' 'police cat' or 'search and rescue cat.'"

Cats (Versus Dogs) Have Almost Twice the Number of Neurons Associated With Processing, Problem Solving and Perception

Of course, dogs are far easier to train and work with than most cats, and this holds true for research studies, too. Could it be that cats are just as intelligent as dogs — or more so — but they simply don't feel the need to demonstrate their smarts? Some scientists have argued, for example, that the number of neurons is a greater indicator of intelligence than brain size, and cats excel in this area.

Kitties have 300 million neurons in their cerebral cortex — the brain area associated with processing, problem solving and perception — while dogs have 160 million. But dogs can sort objects into categories (which means they're capable of abstract thought), and can tell what people are thinking, both of which are indicators of their intelligence.

However, researchers have shown that cats can be trained to do similarly impressive feats, like distinguish between different quantities of objects and follow pointing gestures (like dogs).6 Not surprisingly, it isn't easy to convince cats to show their stuff. For example, when it came to distinguishing between different quantities — a skill fish also possess — the researchers concluded it was actually much easier to work with fish than cats!

Domesticated Cats Still Walk on the Wild Side

Also not surprising was the different response of dogs and cats when presented with an unsolvable puzzle. The dogs looked to humans for help; the cats kept trying on their own to solve the puzzle. This is also a distinction researchers have documented between domesticated dogs and wolves raised by humans. And this makes perfect sense when you consider that many experts believe kitties are only "semi-domesticated" — especially as compared to dogs.

If you think the differences between cat and dog intelligence are fascinating, you may be interested to know that your preference for cats or dogs can tell you something about your intelligence, too!